Let the Sunshine in for Sunshine Week March 13-20
This week, March 13-20 is Sunshine Week, the week proclaimed to celebrate and bring attention to our open records laws.
I was taught to believe the more information we, the public, had, the more knowledge we would have about our community, state and country. In an era where journalists were celebrated for bringing to light such scandals as Watergate, I was keenly aware of how important it is to have open records laws on the books.
Open records laws don’t just apply to the whims of journalists seeking information for a “juicy story.” Open records laws apply to anyone in the public seeking information from our government.
Open records or FOI (Freedom of Information Requests) can be filed by anyone, although they are most used by journalists and writers seeking records. I’ve used open records requests professionally-for stories such as the one I wrote on how often puppy mills are inspected.
When my brother died on a street in Fargo, ND and my family was not notified of his death, I filed open records requests for reports into the investigation, his death certificate and his medical files from the Veteran’s Administration. Those records are proving very beneficial in helping us understand his life after Vietnam.
However helpful open records laws are to ordinary citizens seeking the truth or to journalists getting the information to the public, perception of open records is changing.
Last year, a poll indicated that most Americans feel the media has access to too much information. Among other things, the public has tolerated limited access to information imposed by the government during the war in Iraq.
Just this week, an independent prosecutor in Kansas ruled that Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline did not violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act, nor the spirit of the act when he called six (three at a time) conservative state board of education members to his office, to discuss, among other things (so we’re told), placing stickers on text books downplaying the theory of evolution.
The reason, as quoted in The Kansas City Star was that the Attorney General doesn’t fall under open meetings regulations and he is the one who called the board members to the meetings.
What if Kline hadn’t called the board members to his office to discuss evolution, what if he had called them into his office to tell them his feelings on school financing ( a very hot topic in Kansas right now that concerns every student), or something less controversial, would the public have been so quick to not care if they had access to the meeting? And how do we know what really was discussed…
Open records and open meeting laws are there to ensure that the public (not just the media) has open access to business conducted and discussed by public officials-officials who are there to serve all of the public, not just sub-groups or special interests.
Merriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star, began the week with a column documenting how many stories the paper had recently ran that were the result of FOI requests. Here are two more national stories, as highlighted by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE):
· The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, SD discovered that Gov. Bill Janklow had sealed a bunch of pardons under a little known state law. After appealing to the Attorney General , the records were made public. It was learned the Governor had commuted more prison sentences than any other governor in history.
· The Daily Record in York, PA wrote several stories after filing FOI’s with the government for records on their efforts to protect the public from terrorist attacks.
Freedom of Information can also take on many forms. I was recently reminded by a librarian that like journalists, they too are there to protect the rights of Americans. She told me it was an awesome responsibility to have all of the information that is housed in libraries and to make sure that every citizen has equal access to that information.
It’s a responsibility librarians, as well as true journalists, take very seriously.
But if you don’t trust the government -or journalists, just remember it’s your right to ask for this information yourself.